|Jean-François Garneray, Louis XVI à la Tour|
du Temple (1792) Musée Carnavalet
Tuesday 25th December 1792 was the first Christmas of the new French Republic. At the Temple prison, Louis XVI spent the day writing his will, prior to his appearance at the bar of the Convention on the 26th. Paris was in a state of security crisis and simmering uprest. The religious policies of the Convention were wracked by indecision, with rationalists like Pierre-Louis Manuel moving towards policies hostile to Christianity without declaring them openly. In the Paris Commune, the ascendancy of would-be dechristianisers was assured by the election on 12th December of Pierre Chaumette as procurateur with Hébert as his substitute.
On 23rd December 1792 the Commune prohibited the celebration of Midnight Mass on the pretext of public order. Crowds gathered in many of the poorer parishes and parish priests were obliged to officiate in open defiance of the commissioners sent by the Hôtel de Ville to enforce the order. The surviving accounts emphasise the role of agitators in orchestrating the movement. The Girondin Patriote française identified them as radical rabble-raisers, whereas Prudhomme's Révolutions de Paris blames royalist intervention. However, reading between the lines, there seems to have been strong component of spontaneous popular demonstration. The Sections were clearly divided on the prohibition. It is recorded that at Saint-Eustache, the women of Les Halles gathered together with the intention of hunting down and hanging Manuel. A municipal officer Beugnon, a master-mason by trade, who had been set upon by the women, appeared with on guard next morning at the Temple with his face scratched and bruised.
.From the Patriote française:
In broad daylight, in the public squares, there are puppet shows and towers of cups on exhibition; no harm in that; children and their nannies must be amused. But to assemble in the night in dark garrets to sing hymns, to burn wax and incense in honour of a bastard and an adulterous wife, is scandalous...and merits severe punishment...For more than eighteen centuries this outrage, the same for all that has been made a religion, has been repeated every year on the 24th - 25th December and has not be stamped out.
In these circumstances, the municipality of Paris believed that it was doing its duty to recall the law forbidding nocturnal gathers, and published an order closing the churches on Christmas night, so called. Right thinking people thought this precaution was unnecessary. Who would have supposed that in 1792 anyone in Paris would still be saying Midnight masses ?
But the friends of the King make weapons of anything. They infiltrated the Sections. The Arsenal Section sent a deputation to the Commune to protest against the order: the heroes of the 10th August Revolution wanted to go to Mass. The response was a shrug of the shoulders; the Commune did not know that bands were gathering at the doors of several churches, led by men who did not ordinarily go to Mass. They were men with gold, royalists longing for a Saint-Bartholomew's Day massacre of the patriots (as the procureur of the Commune judiciously remarked). Indeed in the parish of Saint-Germain, they started to ring the bell which, by the orders of the first Medicis, had signalled the massacre of the Protestants... They called out the women and the sans-cul0ttes of the faubourg Saint-Marceau. They threatened the artillery emplacement on the place des Fédérés; at Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie and Saint-Jacques-de-l'Hôpital, at Saint-Eustache, Saint-Méry and Saint-Gervais, municipal officers were ill-treated and the Mass said in their presence in defiance of the law.
The Section Droits de l’Homme came to assure the Commune that it would respect its order. That of the Louvre, on the other hand, petitioned for an explanation... . At Saint-Germain, a citizen was mistaken for Manuel; there is the scoundrel, cried fifty men and women, We must hang him.... At Saint-Laurent, Saint-Victor, Saint-Médard, Saint-Marcel, at the couvent des Anglaises, Mass was said in open defiance of the magistrats. The majority of priests submitted to a little roughing up in order to escape justice...
Although the unrest passed swiftly, religious sentiment remained. On 3rd January the Feast of Sainte Geneviève, went ahead with less ceremony but suitable patriotic fervour at the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. On 30th December Manuel unsuccessfully proposed to the Convention the abolition of Feast of Epiphany ("The Feast of the Kings"); his demands were enacted the following day by the Commune which inaugurated a secular "Feast of the Sans-Culottes": the Chronique de Paris for 4th January contained the following reflections on the Commune's decree and the theme of the "sans-culotte Jesus":
The Commune of Paris, which imagines itself the municipal government of France, makes all the changes in the calendar that it pleases. It proposed (session of 31st December) to call the Day of the Kings the day of the Sans-Culottes.The Commune is wrong to think it has supreme legislative control over the national calendar and other legislation...but it is more justified than one might think to call this day that of the Sans-culottes. The day used commemorate three kings on their knees before a child; it has been proved with great learning, that he became the chief of the sans-culottes of Jerusalem, whose missionaries preached everywhere the doctrine of the ordinary people, which is madness according to high society and which spread the good news of liberty and equality.
Extracts translated from:
Histoire parlementaire de la Révolution Française, Vol. 22: 1792/3, p.359-64.
André Castelot "Louis XVI sur le chemin du sacrifice" Historia no.146, January 1959
Reproduced in Les Roi souterrains [blog]
For the theme of "the sans-culotte Jesus":
Frank Bowman, Le Christ romantique (1973)